ASMR EXPLAINED: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE WHISPERING WOMAN

ASMR is still a relatively new phenomenon, with ‘Gentle Whispering ASMR’ being the first YouTube channel to hit 1 million subscribers back in 2017. While the genre is still considered quite a niche, some ‘ASMRtists’ have gathered as many as 10 million subscribers since then. So, how did the idea of a stranger whispering directly into your ear become such a big hit?

While it may strike many as odd that such an unorthodox relaxation method has entered the mainstream, we must remember that not so long ago practices with proven health benefits, such as yoga and meditation, received similar scepticism.

Some ASMR enthusiasts talk about getting ‘the tingles’, while others just say the videos help them fall asleep. Either way, the millions of views that ASMR draws in every week suggests that cynics should not be so quick to dismiss it.

What is ASMR?

The term ‘ASMR’ (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a non-scientist wanting to give a name to the tingling feeling that spread through her scalp and down her spine when she watched videos of outer space. By 2015, ASMR was a growing movement, with several creators setting up YouTube channels to share this unique sensation with a wider audience.

One Sheffield University study describes ASMR as “the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, tapping, and hand movements.” This feeling has been described as euphoric, relaxing and sleep-inducing, with some likening it to the sensation of someone playing with your hair.

That being the case, we must assume that ASMR has always been around. The best example I have seen so far is given in The Daily Telegraph, where Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway is quoted: “deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke.” Who’d have thought we could make up an acronym for that?

What is the science behind ASMR?

So, I know what you might be thinking. Is there actually any evidence to support this so-called ‘ASMR’, or is it all just a bunch of new-age pseudoscience? Well actually, there is.

A scientific investigation of ASMR first began in 2015 at Swansea University, where Emma Barratt and Dr Nick Davis defined ASMR as a “sensory phenomenon, in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck, and at times further areas in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli.”

Barratt and Davis asked over 500 ASMR enthusiasts to assess why people watched these videos and which triggers they responded to most. Findings showed that 98% used ASMR for relaxation, 82% for insomnia and 82% for stress, while most frequently used triggers were whispering, personal attention, tapping, and slow and repetitive movements.

Another promising set of studies were conducted by Sheffield University in 2018, led by Dr Giulia Poerio, who claimed to experience ASMR herself. “If people don’t have ASMR they struggle to believe that it’s a genuine thing, so there’s quite a lot of scepticism,” said Poerio in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. However, she was vindicated when the studies showed that those claiming to experience ASMR had a reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance (indicating a positive emotional state) when exposed to ASMR videos, while there was no change to those who did not experience ASMR.

Still not sure what to make of it? Poerio goes on to explain to The Daily Telegraph that frisson (getting goosebumps) is the closest related feeling: “Neuro-imaging work has shown you’re more likely to experience music-induced chills if you’ve got stronger connections between auditory and emotional sensors in the brain.” Ever had your arm hairs stand on end when a singer hits that perfect note? Maybe you can experience ASMR, too.

Who are the biggest names in ASMR?

Photo credit: Gibi ASMR

 

The ASMR community is growing rapidly, with some of its biggest stars now airing their content to millions of subscribers. Since Gentle Whispering ASMR’s rise to cyber fame, many have followed in her footsteps, including long-time American creators such as Gibi ASMR and ASMR Darling. There are also plenty of ASMRtists from outside of the USA, including British YouTuber Whispers Red ASMR, Frivolous Fox (an Aussie) and Israeli-born ASMR Glow.

More East Asian ASMR channels have been gaining popularity in recent years, including Latte ASMR and PPOMO ASMR from South Korea and Chinese-born TingTing ASMR. It is also worth noting that ASMR creators with the most subscribers are currently those who have fused the genre with ‘mukbang’ (the South Korean online trend of eating large proportions of food live on camera). These ASMR/mukbang channels have millions tuning in, with SAS ASMR currently on 8.93 million subscribers and Zach Choi ASMR up to 10.2 million.

Can’t say I see the appeal of someone chewing and slurping into a high-sensitivity microphone – but that just goes to show there really is something for everyone when it comes to the internet.

Why are most ASMR creators women?

Photo credit: ASMR Darling

 

ASMR definitely still has a bit of a stigma attached to it – and the tendency for the community’s most popular artists to be attractive, younger women does nothing to dispel the illusion that this is all some weird fetish. “You can sexualise anything,” popular UK creator Whispers Red ASMR pointed out in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, describing her discomfort when she was invited onto ITV’s This Morning to talk about how ASMR could aid sleep, only to be introduced with the strapline: ‘Whisper porn, have you tried it?’

So, is ASMR a sexual stimulant? The short answer is no. According to Barratt and Davis’ 2015 study, only 5% of participants said they used ASMR media for sexual stimulation, hopefully dispelling this notion once and for all. Nonetheless, this doesn’t help us to understand why the majority of popular ASMRtists are young (and predominantly white) women.

There are definitely some guys out there that are not just watching ASMR to relax. In an interview with The New York Times, Gibi ASMR described her story of an obsessive fan who sent her thousands of messages because he thought she was talking directly to him. Unsurprisingly, she filed a police report.

Nevertheless, this imbalance in the ASMR community may be less to do with sex, and more to do with gender (and its traditional implications). Many of these ‘personal attention’ videos cast female artists in the role of caregiver. And perhaps, due to years of societal norms and traditions, audiences gravitate to this out of familiarity.

A million stereotypes then spring to mind – of women being more trustworthy, caring, unthreatening, even submissive. But put it this way: what would you feel more comfortable with? A smiley lady in her early twenties whispering positive buzzwords in your ear, or a big bloke in his late 40s doing the same? I’m not saying this is right or fair, and thankfully there is the occasional male creator, such as Dennis ASMR, who is able to break through nonetheless.

There is also the glaringly obvious lack of ethnic diversity in the ASMR community. Most creators are white females, with a steadily growing number of creators from East Asia. There are very few black female ASMRtists that have managed to accumulate a significant following, which highlights the uncomfortable truth about discrimination and racist undercurrents that pervade the wider YouTube community and its audience.

Thankfully, The Huffington Post has produced an article spotlighting several underrated black ASMRtists such as ASMR Sharm and Annura’s ASMR, which you can read here.

Photo credit: Annura’s ASMR

 

What does the future hold for ASMR?

All signs show that ASMR is progressing more and more into mainstream territory. We might consider the turning point to be beer brand Michelob’s infamous 2019 Super Bowl halftime commercial, where Zoë Kravitz whispered her lines and tapped her fingernails on a beer bottle in true ASMR fashion, opening up the genre to the general public.

W Magazine also threw their virtual hats into the ASMR creative space when they started their ASMR-style interview series with several high-profile celebrities back in 2016. Cardi B proved to be a natural whisperer, admitting that she listens to ASMR every night before she goes to sleep, in a video that now has over 44 million views.

There has even been talk of an ASMR app from Gibi ASMR, who spoke to her subscribers last year about ‘Zees’, where audiences would pay $9.99 a month to watch their favourite ASMRtists on an ad-free platform with downloadable content. The app has yet to launch and the news of a subscription-based service was met with mixed responses from audiences, as some viewed it a high price to pay for content that they could access on YouTube for free.

Nevertheless, some companies clearly think that ASMR is a lucrative market to tap into. The Evening Standard has reported that Samsung is creating an ASMR sound recording solutions device named ‘aiMo’, a smartphone cover case equipped with faux human ears to make recording ASMR content easier than ever. Insider has even gone as far as to describe how ASMR is present in our current music market, with their article ‘How Billie Eilish harnesses the power of ASMR’.

So, as the viewing figures continue to climb and more companies start catching on to this strange new audio-visual trend, it doesn’t look like ASMR is going away any time soon.

My advice? Throw on some headphones, get comfy and see if the ‘tingles’ are for you.

By Hannah McGreevy

Instagram: @TalkingTelly

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